(CN) – Nearly four years after the controversial drone strike, the U.S. government must release more information about the legal rationale for killing New Mexico-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.
On Sept. 30, 2011, the CIA and and Joint Special Operations Command coordinated the bombing of al-Awlaki and another U.S. citizen, al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan.
Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman died in a separate strike weeks later, which the government called accidental.
It was the first time the U.S. government unleashed a predator drone against a citizen abroad who was suspected of terrorism. Reporters scrambled for more information about the secretive operation, and multiple lawsuits were filed to learn the legal justification for killing a citizen who had not been convicted of treason.
At a congressional hearing a year later, two U.S. lawmakers alluded to a “white paper” containing the answers.
Reporter Jason Leopold, a dogged Freedom of Information Act requester, sought these papers as well as other communications between the Obama administration and members of Congress about drone strikes on terror targets.
Before Leopold’s request had been completed, NBC News got its hands on a leaked copy of one of the white papers revealing the rationale for the Department of Defense’s participation in the program in 2013.
Leopold obtained another white paper with “more fulsome analysis” of the strike by suing the Justice Department in federal court in Washington, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta wrote on Wednesday.
Unlike the NBC-acquired memo, this white paper outlined the legal rationale for the CIA, Leopold’s lawyer Jeffrey Light said in a phone interview.
Light called this distinction important because the memorandum involving the CIA purports to explain the basis for “non-uniformed members of the government engaging in acts of warfare in foreign countries.”
The judge ordered the government to lift the redactions on some of that analysis, and expand its search for communications from the “Obama administration.”
“Several redacted passages contain nothing more than legal analysis that does not in any way reference or pertain to any classified information,” Mehta said in a 26-page opinion.
Referring to these passages, attorney Light said: “It will be very enlightening to see why the DOJ believes the CIA is authorized to engage in these acts.”
Mehta also found that the Justice Department, in searching for the documents, interpreted the “Obama administration” too narrowly by equating it to the Executive Office of the President.
“For instance, it is easy to imagine that DOJ might have exchanged relevant communications about drone strikes on U.S citizens in Yemen with high-level officials at the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, or other national security agencies,” Mehta wrote.
If the government does appeal the ruling, Light said, “We’re looking forward to see what’s behind those redactions.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the government is reviewing the judge’s opinion and order.
Scoring another government transparency victory, Leopold burnished his reputation as a “FOIA terrorist” – a label one bureaucrat tagged him with that he’s worn as a badge of honor.
A Courthouse News search shows he has filed at least five lawsuits to wrest documents this year alone, with some of those requests netting major scoops.
On the heels of his latest court victory on Wednesday, Leopold published a story on Vice News with new information about the CIA’s spying on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence based on documents he obtained from a different lawsuit.
Unlike this case, Light said the government produced the documents without a court order.
“I consider that a big win, even though it wasn’t a published opinion,” Light said.
- Judge OK’s City’s Revised Ban on Leaflets at Intersections
- Mom Takes On Circus’ Animal-Rights Stance